29 April, 2014 / General

Forever young? No ta…

Fi as a baby 013I turn fifty this year. How did that happen? Half a century! Before I fill in my date of birth on an online form I have to scroll down and down for at least twenty minutes until the correct year (1964) appears. I’ve started running again, and I’m loving it – but only on soft, grassy surfaces, ie, Old Lady Running. But you know what? It’s fine. Heading for 40 was scarier because back then I was far more sensitive about the whole ageing thing. And now I’m pass all that. I don’t care anymore. It’s extremely liberating.

When I was younger I’d be terribly upset at being perceived as middle-aged. For instance, one fine summer’s day a bunch of friends and I took our children to some botanic gardens. I must have been about 36. We were admiring the blooms, bothering no one, when an elderly man stared directly at us and announced loudly, to no one in particular: ‘Women are having children much later these days, aren’t they?’ 

I couldn’t believe it. This man was properly old! He could probably remember the war and rationing and I bet he’d eaten those foods you only find in old-fashioned cookbooks – things like suet and dried egg. My friends and I limped away feeling thoroughly depressed.

Then there was the ‘kids policing my wardrobe’ phase as if, without their intervention, I might accidentally step out in golden hotpants, like Kylie. When in fact I’d merely selected jeans and a bright top, possibly with dangerously short sleeves. These days my teenagers are too preoccupied with their own lives to care what I’m wearing. In the unlikely event that they happened to pass comment, I’d pay no heed – because I am old enough to know what suits me, thanks very much.

That’s what’s so great about heading for fifty: you stop minding about very much at all. Of course I care about my kids’ wellbeing, and their futures, and my husband and our marriage, and my own parents and what will happen as they grow older. My dad is 80 this year. 80!! He sails his boat up and down the west coast of Scotland – he even sailed to Antigua a few years ago. This summer he plans to jaunt down to Liverpool, because sailing into Liverpool (instead of taking a train there) is something he can do. He is a fine example of someone who never worries about things that don’t matter.

Like wrinkles, for instance. When those first lines appear it feels pretty catastrophic. And now I look back and can see that my skin during my thirties was fine – at least, I had yet to acquire geographical faults. Now I have plenty, but what I don’t have is the terrible ashen-ness, and the colossal under-eye luggage that plagues the parent of small children. That’s something to be very happy about.

I have also discovered that going to bed early with my Kindle and a cup of tea is an extremely lovely thing to do.

Yep, I know – just like an old person. Night all! x

13 April, 2014 / General

The dirt on country living

sheepI grew up in a village in West Yorkshire, where our neighbour tried to revive his deceased corgi by placing him in the airing cupboard. After moving to London, and vowing to never go near the country again, let alone live in it, here we are in deepest, greenest South Lanarkshire in Scotland.

We’ve lived here for fifteen years. I now own countryish things I never thought I’d own: a rake, warm gloves, a waterproof coat. Finally I grew sick of Jimmy telling me off for clopping around country lanes in sandals and mules, and saying smug things like, ‘There’s no such thing as the wrong kind of weather, just the wrong shoes’, and got myself some wellies.

If you’re thinking of taking a similar step, here a few things I’ve learnt about the country over the years.

  1. 1. It’s not like Country Living magazine. We have yet to furnish our home with ‘charming finds.’ It’s a mixture of knackered Ikea stuff and a lumpen brown DFS sofa chosen in haste as our children were jumping on everything. 
  1. You can be noisy.At least, if your house is apart from other houses which, thankfully, ours is. So our teenagers’ drums and guitars can be played at deafening volumes, which they don’t appreciate at all. In my Hackney flat someone would complain if you walked across your own living room in anything other than carpet slippers.

    3. It’s a myth that everyone’s friendly in the country.But when they are, they really help you out. I’ll be forever grateful to the newsagent who phoned me because he was worried about my mother spending too much money in his shop. Also the butcher who, when I ran over yelling that there was a crow in our house, shut up his shop and heroically removed the bird from our living room, with the aid of a small tea towel. 
  1. It’s dirty.Sure, I was a dirtier person in London: when we moved to Scotland I was amazed when a cotton wool pad didn’t come away gunmetal grey after being in contact with my face. But our house here definitely sucks in more filth than any of our London flats ever did. It comes in on your wellies and stuck to the dog. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Just that the countryside somehow manages to sneak into your house and there’s no way of keeping it out.  
  1. Animals.Everyone knows that bulls are dangerous, but what about the rest? I mean, cows are big and therefore intimidating, but could they harm you? All these years here and I still have no bloody idea. Would a ram actually ramyou? While some people move to the country and immediately acquire all manner of hooved beasts, it’s not essential. Some, like us, remain city cissies where livestock is concerned. 

    6. It can become very competitive. In terms of being a proper rural type, I mean. Not real country people, who’ve grown up here – they build dry stone walls and help calves to be born without making out it’s any big deal. It’s the newcomers who shout about being country people now. They’re the ones curing their own bacon and going on butchering courses and posting pictures on Facebook of themselves surrounded by entrails and blood. 

  1. You’ll feel compelled to make jam. Fruit, sugar and a load of boiling – how hard can it be? Let’s just say Bonne Maman aren’t exactly quaking in their little gingham boots. 

    8. You get used to not having access to everything 24/7.It’s fine, it really is. My mother never needed to buy oven cleaner or chicken breasts at 2.30 am, and neither do I. 
  1. People never forget things.When I was about three I had a pee in our road. It just seemed easier than going home and using the loo. Being a tiny community, everyone knew about it about five minutes later. It was still being talked about as we packed up to leave when I was 14 years old.
  1. Children love it. As a nipper I spent my whole time rolling down hills, jumping in rivers and having a fantastically free time of it. I even saw a flasher once – a proper old-school one, with his beige coat held wide open. ‘I saw the front of a man!’ I yelled, tearing into our house where Mum was tending something on the stove. She didn’t even look round. It was hardly unusual, I suppose. Think of the seventies and what comes to mind? Soda Stream and men flashing their bits. Anyway, to me the country wasn’t boring at all. Then I became a teenager and wanted access to Miners make-up and boys called Dave like the ones in Jackie stories, and nothing was ever the same again.

So be prepared for your children to grow out of their rural habitat. When that happens, naturally they’ll blame you for their crappy life. But then they’d do that wherever you lived.

08 April, 2014 / General

How should new mothers dress then?

dress2Here’s some shocking news. After having babies, women tend to alter the way they dress. According to the Daily Mail’s ‘report’ last week, we lose all interest in fashion until our children reach the age of three years and nine months. Only then do we start to take a pride in our appearance again. That’s almost four years in the saggy-arsed leggings, massive gravy-stained Garfield T-shirt wilderness. What are we thinking?

The figures are shocking. 21% of new mothers ditch short skirts, while 17% swap skinny jeans for something altogether more forgiving and comfortable. Talk about letting the side down! More alarming still, 40% of us lower our heel height by a whole two inches after producing a sprog. ‘Slummy mummies,’ the headline chastises. I’m still reeling in horror on learning that 16% of new mothers abandon their crop tops.

Reading this propels me right back to those baby and toddler years (my eldest – twin boys – are now 17). By far my happiest memories involve being with my gang of new mum friends, in Victoria Park in East London. That’s my friend Fliss, above, with my son Dex. We bonded over picnics and long walks with our buggies, delighting in that, ‘Thank God I’ve met someone like me!’ realisation that hits us when we find kindred spirits in between all that bib laundering.

Long, sunny afternoons were filled with giggled confessions over the outrageous parenting shortcuts we took. We made each other laugh on those days when a nappy had exploded, or a toddler had disgraced himself by kicking over a display in a supermarket – those small disasters which seem altogether less awful when you have someone to share them with. 

These women were brilliant fun and saved my sanity when I feared I was losing the plot. I don’t remember ever looking around and thinking, ‘Haven’t they let themselves go?’ They wore T-shirts, strappy tops, jeans and combats (which were a thing at the time, and ideal for early parenting: roomy, cool – in the temperature sense – and virtually indestructible). Perhaps surprisingly, considering the sleep deprivation we were enduring, everyone looked healthy and glowy due to being outdoors with active children in all but the worst weather.  

For the first time in my life I had toned arms from pushing the twin buggy for miles every day. The group’s hairstyle of choice was generally longish, and hastily pulled up – which happens to be pretty flattering – or an impish crop. The Daily Mail  laments that 18% of new mothers have their hair cut into a more ‘practical’ style – but since when did practical mean unlovely?

In fact, motherhood doesn’t necessitate the wearing of horrible T-shirts that you wouldn’t have slept in previously. Sure, comfort takes over; no one has time to ‘plan’ outfits, and easy, washable fabrics are the order of the day. But no one I knew went to the shops in their dressing gown with sick down the front, or gave up on hair and teeth brushing. Personally, I had a ‘put your lipstick on’ rule, which wasn’t always achievable, but was at least something to aim for. And when my shins started to resemble those of a bear, more suited to roaming about in an Alaskan forest than a terraced house in Bethnal Green, then I’d get my razor out.

fliss 014None of us had much cash at the time. We bought our kids’ clothes from a little second-hand shop called Chocolate Crocodile in Hackney, and headed to the charity shops of Roman Road for ourselves. Cheap cotton dresses were grabbed in the market. No one worried about grass or ice cream stains, and our footwear (flat, obviously) enabled us to sprint across the park and rescue an escaping child whenever required. My new friends fell into an uncontrived way of dressing which looked all the fresher and lovelier for being thrown together at 6.15 am amidst babies braying for attention. If we cared about our appearance it was to reassure ourselves that we were in control(ish), and managing fine, rather than about keeping up with trends. We weren’t ‘slummy’, but comfy and happy and enjoying a time which flashes by in a blink.

Interestingly, no one seems to have researched the percentage of men who swap their skinny jeans and snug T-shirts for more forgiving attire when Junior comes along. But that’s fine, right? Because they’re dads.

03 April, 2014 / Writing

Who cares about reviews?

take-mum-outI mean, really, what do they matter? They’re just a person’s opinion. A review might have been written when someone was in a furious mood – maybe their goldfish had died, or they’d eaten a bad egg sandwich. Everyone knows this, but when you’ve made something yourself and it’s out there, being given the thumbs up or down, then of course it matters a lot what others think of it. 

These days everyone reviews everything, all of the time. I buy some vacuum cleaner bags and next thing, up pops an email asking if I’d care to review them. WHAT AM I MEANT TO SAY ABOUT VACUUM CLEANER BAGS? They are bags! They fill up with dust, dirt and weird fuzzy stuff. What else is there to say? Books, of course, are different, as we tend to have pretty strong opinions about what we’ve just read. And authors want to know what those opinions are, even if we say, ‘Oh, I never read reviews.’ Take Mum Out, my latest  novel, came out three weeks ago and guess what? I’ve been checking my Amazon reviews as often as the chilli seeds I planted in a plastic pot – ie, daily. I know: embarrassing. As my 17 year son put it, ‘You are a boring middle-aged woman.’ Luckily, the reviews are making me happier than the progress of the chillies (a tiny sprouty thing poked out of the soil, then keeled over and died).

Of course, everyone gets the odd iffy review too. Sometimes, a certain phrase sticks in the mind for months, even years after it was written. Like this one: ‘This book was just one sentence after another.’ What on earth did she mean?! I still think about it now, occasionally – in the the way that I’ll never forget a scaffolder yelling, ‘Your arse looks like two footballs’ – back in 1983. ‘My daughter agreed,’ the reviewer added. Now I imaged the two of them, muttering together about my piled-up sentences.

As for positive reviews, naturally any author is delighted by praise. Yes, glowing reviews can boost sales, but there’s more to it than that. Writing a novel is a fairly long-term endeavour – mine take about nine months – and every author I know suffers terrible crises of confidence from time to time. At around the middle bit, usually, when the euphoria of starting something new has worn off, and you’re not yet charging towards the finishing post. (I sometimes joke that chapters 3-40 constitute ‘the difficult middle bit’). When you’re feeling that way – worrying that it’ll never come right – then reading a few enthusiastic reviews of the previous book goes a long way to restoring confidence.

‘Well, she liked it,’ you can tell yourself. ‘She found it funny and snorted with laughter on the bus.’ Then, as if by magic, getting on with the book-in-progress feels a little less daunting.

If you’ve enjoyed a book, I’d encourage you to take a few moments to post a review. Even if you wanted to set it alight and drive over it in a truck, then you are, of course, still entitled to share your opinion. Reviews matter, in that they can get people talking and encourage others to act on your recommendation. They can even make or break someone’s day. So please, don’t believe any writer who says they don’t read them.  They do, even if they’re peeping between their fingers. 

31 March, 2014 / General

Forever young… (sort of)

youngI read recently that no one acts their age anymore. In fact it’s estimated that we behave around a decade younger than the age we really are. I’m not sure how this was measured, as surely it’s impossible to say how a 40 year-old, as opposed to someone of 50, should behave – but the gist is that we’re not being terribly grown-up. I know lots of forty- and even fifty-something men who are just like adolescents really, with less hair. And women who, despite groaning a bit when they get up from a chair, still hare off to Ibiza at the drop of a hat. Prolonged adolescence, the experts call it, and I think it’s great.

Well, compared to real adolescence it is. I mean, who’d want to be thirteen again, and who can blame us for wanting to have another shot at it? It was hellish, first time around. Spots, boils and communal showers at school, with everyone laughing at your pubes, or lack thereof – not to mention exams, those horrible Findus Crispy Pancakes and having to live with Mum and Dad. No one in their right mind would want to go through that again.

The late 70s/early 80s were a particularly bad time to be young. Who was there to fancy? Leo Sayer and Bruno out of Fame. We wore polka-dot ra-ra skirts and leg warmers over jeans – probably the least flattering garments ever invented. There were only three – at most four – TV channels, and you couldn’t make a phone call without a parent listening in to every word. And, God, life was dull back then. Nothing to look forward to apart from Christmas, birthdays and the Eurovision Song Contest. As we lived in a tiny West Yorkshire village, life was particularly uneventful. Apart from when the ice cream van came – just once, during the twelve years we lived there – the rest of the time I spent sitting a field, or swinging on a farm gate.

leo sayerSo who can blame my generation for behaving immaturely, now that we’re old enough to enjoy it? I don’t mean wearing clothes designed for youngsters – tiny denim hotpants are not the way I want to go. Nor am I talk about partying so relentlessly that I can’t haul myself out of bed in the morning. I mean, someone still has to make breakfast. No, it’s more a feeling that it’s still possible to act spontaneously, should the urge take us. Like stealing a day off work because the sun’s shining. Like not feeling like a failure because you’ve had a piece of toast (wheat! Aghh!), or decided you actually hate kale, and couldn’t be arsed to make your green juice that morning.

Is anything more tediously grown up than the current obsession with clean, pure living? Even my most health-aware friend found Gwyneth’s cookbook, ‘It’s All Good’, too joyless to follow for more than three days. ‘No one else in the family would eat anything I made,’ she moaned. So no wonder we’re rebelling. You can hardly blame us for cracking open the wine on a school night or deciding not to get the roof fixed because what we actually want to spend our money on is a weekend in Nice.

I bet even Gwyneth’s rebelling – against her former self – after the big split announcement.  I love to think of her saying, ‘Sod it’, binning her Manuka honey and consciously uncoupling the lid off a big tub of Nutella and scoffing it with a spoon. In bed, of course, under slightly manky adolescent sheets.